We’re Here, We’re Queer, Y’all

Gays in Rural America

Reality television often acquaints us with people we never knew existed. During last week’s season finale of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” TLC’s smash hit about the small-town Georgia family of Alana Thompson, a 7-year-old pageant contestant, viewers were introduced to Alana’s Uncle Lee — affectionately known as “Uncle Poodle.” In Alana’s world, a “poodle” is a gay man, and his appearance on the show has opened people’s eyes to something many have never considered: that you can be openly gay and accepted in the rural South.

Many people assume that because the South is the nation’s most evangelical and politically conservative region, it is probably also a hotbed for hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. But while such crimes do occur, they are less common than in large urban centers, where the absence of a tight community and the abundance of strangers make it easier to target people for their differences.

I should know: as a lesbian who has lived in the South my entire life, and in a small town in the Deep South for part of it, I’ve met many people — men, women and transgendered — whose sexual identity has not prevented them from living a life of acceptance, admiration and even respect by their families and communities.

My friend Helen and her partner, Kathleen, for example, have made an enormous impact on the small town of Louisville, Ga., in rural Jefferson County. Several years ago they bought an old fire station and turned it into an art gallery. What began as a way to showcase rural artists has expanded into a larger community endeavor in which children from the local public schools, many of whom are quite poor, are given free classes in art and art appreciation.

And the gallery openings? The last one I attended drew nearly 100 people.

It’s an unspoken truth that Helen and Kathleen are in a committed relationship, and yet they’re invited to social gatherings as a couple, and only a few months ago Helen gave the graduation address at the local high school. People know who they are and very likely understand the nature of their relationship, and it’s clear they value the investment that Helen and Kathleen have made in their community.

In the mid-1990s, while in graduate school, I lived in the small city of Hattiesburg, Miss. There I met gays and lesbians who came to Hattiesburg from nearby rural communities like Petal, Wiggins, Runnelstown and even more far-flung places to enjoy the one gay bar that was within reasonable driving distance, or simply hang out with friends. Though they came for the comforts of a larger L.G.B.T. community, their sexual orientation was often known to their communities back home.

They were gay, but they weren’t only that. Many of them were working class, from religiously conservative families and often politically conservative themselves.

One woman I met, Sandy, is what you’d describe as butch. She drives a truck and she belongs to a (nearly) all-male hunting club. She goes on coon hunts, which she’s described to me as romantic adventures with the baying of hounds in the cool of the night. Her mother, on the other hand, was a proud member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a prim and proper Southern lady.

Because my dissertation was about the U.D.C., Sandy took me to meet her. While at her mother’s house, Sandy went back to her old bedroom and returned with a badge she had won in the eighth grade — for sewing a dress. She seemed to take pride in the fact that as a woman who had pretty much rejected traditional femininity, she had won top prize at her school for sewing.

I don’t think her mother ever openly acknowledged her daughter’s sexual orientation, which she certainly knew, because such things usually go unsaid in the South.

Most Southerners who aren’t comfortable with homosexuality don’t use terms like “gay” or “lesbian.” They’ll use euphemisms. A gay man is a “little light in the loafers” or has “sugar in his britches.” If a lesbian has a partner, the partner is often referred to as her “friend.” But everyone knows exactly what it means.

To be sure, such acceptance is often possible because, in a small community, gays and lesbians don’t represent a large population to begin with. As my partner, who grew up in rural South Carolina, told me, “in my high school, the L.G.B.T. group had a membership of one and was taking applications.”

And there is a limit to the acceptance. In the rural South, people love their sons and daughters and they may even break bread with the florist and his partner, but they still believe homosexuality is a sin. They draw the line at a gay pride march down Main Street, and they won’t stand for gay marriage.

Still, as Alana’s Uncle Lee has shown America, there are gays living in the rural South who don’t all set out for the big city. They lead rich lives and have families, and sometimes even communities, that love them and accept them for who they are.

Karen L. Cox is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture.”

by Karen L. Cox
Source – The New York Times